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From Second Chair to the Bench: An Unusual Path in Becoming a Scientist

By Jerry Phelps
August 2006

Dan Shaughnessy (right) and Pinchas Zuckerman (left)
  at rehearsal with the N.C. Symphony in 1992.
Dan Shaughnessy (right) and Pinchas Zuckerman (left) at rehearsal with the N.C. Symphony in 1992.

Dan Shaughnessy, a post-doctoral fellow in Jack Taylor's laboratory in the NIEHS Laboratory of Molecular Carcinogenesis, didn't grow up dreaming of scientific discoveries and endless hours toiling away at a lab bench. Instead, he applied his talents and energy to music and specifically, the violin. Shaughnessy attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York graduating with a bachelor of music degree in 1982.

From there he obtained a master's degree at the University of Houston in 1984 where he played in a graduate student string quartet, did freelance gigs when he got the chance, and taught private music lessons.

In 1985, he moved to Raleigh to teach music at Ravenscroft School, while his wife Lisa joined the N.C. Symphony. Two years later, Shaughnessy also joined the symphony as second chair in the violin section, and the pair was soon touring. At the time, the Symphony, a major U.S. orchestra, had a mandate to play in all of the State's fifty counties every two years.

Shaughnessy said, "The constant traveling became a problem when we started a family." Child care became a major issue since he and Lisa had no local family members to fall back on. Shaughnessy began to think of career options that would allow him to be at home more. He thought of a career as a scientist. He enjoyed biology in high school, and also the one science class he had taken in college. He began to explore options for returning to school to pursue a Ph.D. After consulting with staff at the Department of Environmental Health at the University of North Carolina to determine the undergraduate prerequisite courses he would need, Shaughnessy enrolled and took classes in chemistry and biology at North Carolina State University in the summer. Later that year, he took an extended leave from the symphony to focus on his studies. At a crossroads, he made a critical decision to pursue science full time and resigned from the symphony. He applied and was accepted to the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina. He received both the master's of public health and Ph.D. degrees in 2000 and 2002 respectively. Shaughnessy worked with David DeMarini at the EPA's Environmental Carcinogenesis Division while a graduate student. He joined Taylor's lab as a post-doctoral fellow in 2002.

Shaughnessy's area of research is the role of diet in cancer risk with special emphasis on mutagen exposure from fried meats, and possible interventions to block their deleterious effects. While in the Taylor lab, he conducted a small controlled feeding study in humans. Volunteers ate a very strict diet consisting of lots of fried meat alone or in combination with three putative mutagen inhibitors - chlorophyllin, cruciferous vegetables, and yogurt. He used the Ames assay to detect fried-meat related mutagencity in urine and stool samples, and the Comet assay to detect DNA damage in blood lymphocytes and rectal pinch biopsies. The study showed that DNA damage went down significantly in subjects eating the inhibitors along with the fried meat. DNA damage increased when subjects ate meat fried at high temperature compared to meat fried at low temperature, although that trend was not statistically significant. A larger study is necessary to confirm these findings.

Shaughnessy is again at a turning point in his life. At the end of his post-doctoral fellowship and searching for a permanent job, he has taken a position in the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training as a Health Science Administrator. He is transitioning into the new career and expects to be full-time in September. While no longer playing professionally, he still plays the violin "for fun," performing occasionally with the Durham Choral Society, the Carolina Ballet, and the Opera Company of North Carolina. He and Lisa have two children: Sarah aged 15 and Emma, 12. He is looking forward to his new position and will certainly bring a wide array of talents to his role as a science administrator in DERT.

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